Stealing from other cultures

Ever since the whitewashing controversy earlier this year, I’ve been thinking more about issues of non-white character portrayal in film and books. I know the controversy didn’t start with Ghost in the Shell, and Lionel Shriver’s infamous speech certainly kicked up quite a fuss in 2016, but it’s only recently that the smattering of feelings I’ve had about this seems to be taking shape.

See this tweet:

Admittedly, if I saw an ad for this film without having seen this tweet, I probably wouldn’t have batted an eyelid about the Asian representation thing. Maybe it’s because there’s so much racially charged emotion in the debate that I find it hard to take stock of my own feelings independent of external influences.

But this recent post by author Elizabeth StevensWhite Writers Writing Non-White Characters: Why I Vote Yes, For Commercial Fiction, hit very close to home, and helped me find some structure for my own feelings on this.

I am Asian. Chinese, to be specific, maybe with a little indigenous Southeast Asian thrown in the mix too (one time I was told yes, another time I was told no, so who the hell knows). As a reader, I consider myself somewhat colourblind (“colour agnostic” might be a better term), in that I don’t often think about fictional characters in terms of their race, though I have often felt a sense of novelty or piqued interest when presented with non-white main characters – maybe because it’s unusual, I don’t know.

Recently, my partner and I compared notes on how we would cast the characters from The Quantum Thief in our ideal hypothetical movie. While we agreed on Orlando Bloom or Luke Evans as Jean Le Flambeur, we had very different ideas for Mieli. For starters, he pictured her as a ScarJo type, where I’d always thought of her as more of a Tessa Thompson – quite different, huh?

I don’t tend to read character descriptions in fiction, so his depiction is probably more accurate than mine. But how someone looks has always seemed less interesting to me than how they behave.

So, personally, I don’t mind white writers writing non-white characters. Just having a variety of characters, cultures, issues, turns of phrase, etc. makes a story so interesting. That’s not to say white characters and their problems are uninteresting, but that they’d be even more interesting when contrasted against colourful elements.

But Stevens highlights an interesting point in her piece: respect.

Are you a white author trying to tell the story of a disenfranchised Mexican immigrant? Maybe reconsider.

However, are you a white author of erotica looking to cast a dark-skinned black woman as your leading lady? Please, write on!

If someone who’s never walked in my shoes started telling me what it’s like to walk in my shoes and how I should feel about it, I’d find it hard to stay immersed in the story. That’s the kicker for me. If an author has done their homework well enough, such that any racial/cultural elements in the story don’t clash with what I know from experience, then I couldn’t care less what race they are. At the end of the day, people all experience the same frustrations and feelings. As a reader, I just want characters I can relate to.

I don’t mind a little cultural appropriation. To use a non-fiction example, if a friend showed up to a costume party in a black bob wig and a cheongsam, I don’t expect I’d get offended. Cheongsam dresses are nice on the eyes, and I like seeing them around (even if it’s just a costume). If they pinned their eyes back and did yellowface, though, I’d start wondering about what they were trying to accomplish.

It’s not that I’m offended by yellowface. It’s that it’s kind of cringey and tacky. So if the rest of their costume was overtly tacky, and I knew that person to have a cringey sense of humour, I’d probably find it in character for a well-executed joke. Context is important here, I suppose.

Where I grew up, we laughed at our own little Asian eyes and accents and penchant for haggling. It was all part of appreciating our own culture in a multicultural society; all part of coming together and sharing a joke. So, I’m OK with non-Asian cultures doing it too, cos why shouldn’t we share funny moments together when we care about each other?

If the joke fails, though, all bets are off. I know it’s harsh to expect everyone to nail comedy, but jokes are a gamble. Every joker knows this deep down; if they don’t, I’d wonder if respect was ever on the table to begin with. I agree with Lionel Shriver’s point about writers being cultural pickpockets, so if someone’s going to pickpocket something for a joke, it better be hilarious to make the theft worthwhile!

What makes me uncomfortable is when a stereotype is laid on real thick and laboured like no one’s gonna get it unless you beat them over the head with it. That’s not only disrespectful to the people you stole from, but disrespectful to the audience you’re presenting it to. That poor delivery makes the joke unfunny. Who’s coming together then? Was it worthwhile?

Well, that’s just me as a reader. As a writer, I have more thoughts, but this post is long enough already and I really need a cup of tea.